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James Bonham
The Alamo's brave messenger

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

James Butler Bonham was a rowdy son of South Carolina. At a very young age he was known as a high-spirited fellow who seemed to always be in and out of trouble during much of his youth. Bonham was born at Red Banks, South Carolina, in 1807, and he was killed in combat on March 6, 1836, in Texas - at the Alamo.

According to the Handbook of Texas, Bonham was a second cousin to the commander of the Alamo, William Barrett Travis. It seems these South Carolina kin folk were destined to become heroes fighting for the cause of freedom in a place far from home.

Much has been written about Travis, but Bonham doesn’t receive near as much notoriety - although he was as much a hero as his cousin.

It seems the men who fought and died in the Texas Revolution were cut from the same cloth - at least the leaders were. Like Travis, Bowie, Houston, and Crockett; James Bonham was a man known for getting into altercations.

He studied law in South Carolina and opened a law office in the town of Pendleton in 1830. Bonham is said to have taken a cane to an opposing lawyer during a trial because he believed the man insulted his female client.

When the judge ordered Bonham to apologize to his opponent, he threatened to “[tweak] the judge’s nose.” That remark landed the high-spirited lawyer in jail for 90 days after the judge found him in contempt of court.

In 1832, Bonham was serving as an aide to South Carolina Gov. James Hamilton. That position brought him the rank of lieutenant colonel. The year 1834, found Bonham practicing law in Montgomery, Alabama. And by 1835, the young lawyer was rapidly throwing more of his support behind the Texas fight for independence.

After he led a rally for the Texas cause in Mobile, Alabama, the citizens there appointed him to send their support to Sam Houston. He organized a volunteer company, the Mobile Grays, to serve in Texas.

Bonham reached Texas in November 1835 and immediately got involved in military affairs. He wrote a letter to Sam Houston volunteering his services to Texas while declining all pay, lands, or rations in return. Although he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Texas cavalry, he wasn’t assigned to a specific unit. During this time he set up a law practice in Brazoria.

It is has been written that Houston held a lot of admiration for the young lawyer from South Carolina. He recommended that Bonham be given the rank of major because, as Houston wrote, “His influence in the army is great - more so than some who would be generals.”

Bonham is believed to have traveled to San Antonio with James Bowie on Jan. 19, 1836. It seems that Bonham became a trusted messenger for Travis. History tells us that he was present sporadically at the Alamo. He continued to come and go through Mexican army lines carrying Travis’ pleas for help to the Texas settlements.

There is some controversy as to whether or not Bonham brought the news that Col. Fannin was not bringing reinforcements from Goliad as is sometimes depicted in movies about the Alamo. Actually he brought word from Robert M. Williamson, one of the framers of the Texas declaration for independence that help was on the way and urged Travis to hold out.

But we know that, other than 32 brave men from Gonzales, no other help came and Bonham died with the rest of the defenders on March 6, 1836. He is believed to have died in the interior of the Alamo chapel manning one of the cannons.

The young lawyer/soldier died for the cause of freedom a long way from his birthplace in Red Banks, South Carolina, but the people of Texas didn’t forget his service or that he made the ultimate sacrifice.

In 1936, the Texas Centennial Commission erected a statue of Bonham on the courthouse square of the town of Bonham, named in his honor.


© Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary
November 2 , 2013 column
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